College basketball is not that different from other sports in terms of its history. Often defined in forms of eras — or eras played in — it is how many differentiate players and coaches from yesteryear from those partaking in the modern day charade of amateurism we see today.
Many seasons before 2016-’17 shaped the sport and made it what it is today. Some good. Others bad. Yet those years, or merely a moment or two in each, still have a lasting effect on how the sport is played, as well as how it is consumed by the media and fans.
No matter how one feels about amateurism or any of the other polarizing topics that often get discussed during the sport’s offseason, had the NCAA’s infancy not introduced (or indoctrinated, depending on your opinion) those ideals way back then, we might not be having the pay-to-play discussions we tend to have on social media fairly regularly.
For some more perspective on how certain seasons (and its moments) have impacted college basketball:
- 1966 – Texas Western starting five black players in the national title game against Kentucky, which lit a fire under the sport as far as integration was/is concerned. While we would have eventually (I hope) gotten there, this point was crucial to the sport’s play and consumption.
- 1979 – Magic Johnson (Michigan State) versus Larry Bird (Indiana State) enthralled a nation that had previously failed to fall in love with college basketball as consumers. While the season itself isn’t remembered in its entirety, as most aren’t, the Indiana State Sycamores’ run set the stage for the wildly popular national title game, which also set up…
- 1981 – This year isn’t as significant if it wasn’t so shortly removed from ’79. Thanks to the Bird-Magic drama that led to some new fans, and created a slight mythology around smaller schools in the Big Dance, March 14 of 1981 became rather important.
- Widely regarded as the singular day when the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament began to gain national buzz, as multiple Tournament buzzer-beaters happened within seconds of each other, March Madness became recognized as a can’t-miss event with the whiparound coverage used before there were a thousand channels on your TV.
- 1985 through 1987 – The last year without the shot clock was 1985, then the first with it was 1986, culminating with 1987 being the first year with both a shot clock and a three-point line.
- 1985 – The first year with 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
So on and so forth, but you get the point.
There are obviously other historically important years (68 teams, shot-clock reduction, etc.). That was simply a way to acknowledge a few other important seasons gone by before explaining how the upcoming campaign may end up joining them in the history books.
Social Activism Is Aligning To Make Things Happen
This one is complicated in terms of subject matter, but simplified when one notices the stark contrast from student-athletes of the past (generally) not speaking out against the NCAA or its university members while still playing, and someone like Nigel Hayes currently rebelling against a handful of issues — with one of the most important being athlete rights.
As it often is with college basketball, what makes a season historically important isn’t necessarily the games, but the impact players, games and events have on the trajectory of the sport.
Hayes isn’t some slouch player or a guy playing for a low-major, either. That’s important. He’s one of the best players in the Big Ten for Wisconsin, and his voice is an educated one. It is going to make whatever he says hard to ignore… and harder to dismiss.
We recently discussed this at length, for what it is worth.
Only time will tell if any impact is made by Hayes, or the other student-athletes he inspires to speak their minds, but it is unusual to have such a prolific player — especially while still playing in college — putting a face and name to the anti-NCAA cause.
A Potential Power Shift Is Happening
Traditionally, Western Kentucky and Harvard are not dominating the recruiting trail like a Duke or Kentucky. But here we are, in 2016, and both programs are making serious waves in the realm of landing top high school recruits.
This can most certainly be an anomaly. One or two seasons of good-to-great recruiting don’t inherently signify a power shift. At the same time, and this can’t be noted hard enough, WKU and Harvard are recruiting at elite program levels. It is patently absurd when you think about it.
Then again, Duke wasn’t Duke, UConn wasn’t UConn, and Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga, until certain people and scenarios helped to make it that way.
But it isn’t only the low-to-mid-majors who are recruiting at a different level than most.
Quietly, Washington has recruited a number of future NBA prospects to campus. While it hasn’t led to as much on the court success as the program would want, it is better than voyaging through the Pac-12 with a bunch of three-star recruits.
Football’s Decreased Popularity Does… What?
Football is king. Even the most stubborn people realize this. So sure, we are not about to do a classic “please like my sport” rant we’ve all gone on from time to time.
However, the NFL’s ratings have declined. The reasons for this are likely many — viewer habits changing, violence, bad games, a combination of a billion things — but they do present college basketball with an interesting opportunity.
People who are no longer watching the NFL (or football in general) might still be potential customers — not all of them, obviously, but even grabbing only a small percentage of that sport’s spurned fans can be a big boost for college basketball.
More new eyes, more new money. More new money, bigger and better investments — and, who knows, maybe some of those investments make their way DIRECTLY back to the players (LOL).
Realignment Mostly Being Settled Sets Pecking Orders
The Big 12 is still going to Big 12 itself to the point of absurdity. There’s no getting around that. While that conference does its thing until it inevitably disbands after its TV deal is up, the rest of the country happens to be more firmly embedded in its current infrastructure of leagues.
It has been a few years since it has been this way, too. Because of that, we are getting a better understanding of where programs stand in any given league.
A good example of this is (and will continue to be) the Pittsburgh Panthers. After spending over a decade being a top-level program in the Big East, Pitt has seemingly become a middle of the pack Atlantic Coast Conference squad. With the exit of Jamie Dixon to TCU (who is clearly refreshed after the move), and the insertion of Kevin Stallings, we are about to find out if the coaches made the Panthers, or the university that made the program.
Similar things apply across the rest of the country.
The SEC went crazy with good coaching hires, and we should finally see a pecking order become more firmly embedded; Big East basketball has withstood the mass exodus of great programs, and an upper echelon has been set; and the Pac-12 is redefining its history in real time, as USC — and many others — are making a run at becoming the “it” destination for recruits interested in West Coast basketball while Steve Alford and UCLA try to cling to tradition.
Whatever Is Most Recent Is More Important
Before reading some of the examples listed in the bulletin point section of the column, were you able to list the dates (or years) of some of those events happening? Of course not. Unless you are a walking Wikipedia page, you probably have more important things stored in your mind than the year the shot-clock was introduced — like knowing your favorite college basketball writer’s Twitter handle.
Whatever happens most recently is almost always viewed as having some form of historical impact. A few hours removed from any quality sporting event, you’ll no doubt hear about how that was “one of the greatest games” someone ever saw played.
A similar thing applies to the historical context a season in a sport helps shape.
When you combine all the things listed in previous subheaders with the potential impact each can have, and then consider the most recent thing being done in the sport during the social media era, we’re only a few months away from some blog writing “The Oral History of the 2016-’17 College Basketball Season: The Sport’s Most Important Season Ever.”
For disclosure: I will be more than happy to contribute, Blog Person of the Future.